Here is another opinion column that I wrote this month for the Shelburne Falls Independent newspaper. In the spirit of Easter, I offer it here!
Over the past few years I have noticed that a popular theme in movies and books is the experience that some people have had in dying and living to tell about it. From these people (real or fictional), we hear about the beckoning light at the end of a tunnel, a great sense of peace swooping in and taking over, a fast rewind of a life and then sometimes a strong physical experience of being sent back to life. As my wife’s Aunt Rena reported, Jesus told her, “Rena, get up out of bed. I am not ready for you!” Or as she said at other times, “He said, ‘Rena, I am not through with you!’”
These near-death or dead and brought-back-to-life stories draw us in because most people would “die” to know what really happens on the other side of life. Whether we believe in life after death, resurrection, reincarnation or if we settle for the earthly wisdom of “dust you are and to dust you shall return,” most of us are fascinated with near-death stories.
I am thinking about all this as my church is walking with other local churches on what we call the “Lenten Way,” which is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) preceding Easter. Lent, among other things, is the time that Christians stop to look at who we really are and what hinders us from living into our best selves. During Lent we practice new ways of being truthful and forgiving of self and others. For many Christians, Easter is the time that we pay less attention to bunny rabbits (but of course who can turn down a chocolate egg?) and more attention to the central story of Christianity, which is the mystery of Jesus, who lived and died and came back to life to tell his students about it.
Actually, one of the interesting things is that Jesus did not really say anything about what happened to him when he died and was brought back to life. In the Christian scriptures there is nothing about a beckoning light, a review of his life, a welcome home or a push back to earth. Instead, what we hear about in his after-death experience is his instruction to his followers to accept life, his and ours, and to spread love and peace here and now.
That brings me to thinking about how often people do or don’t report “near-life” experiences. Near-life experiences are times when you suddenly find yourself not walking around asleep or numb or dead, but actually alive. Near-life experiences are when you are jolted out of “Is this all there is?” to “This is it!” Near-life experience is not nirvana or heaven because nirvana and heaven, as far as I understand them, are outside daily life as we know it. Near-life experiences are when we find ourselves suddenly closer to life than we have ever been.
Most of us have not brushed close to death and lived to tell about it, which is maybe why we like to hear about these encounters. But all of us have the chance to brush close to life and spread the word. When we do come close to fully and deeply living with all our senses alive, our response more often than not is to be grateful. The mystic Meister Eckhart is reported to have said, “If the only prayer that you say in life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”
So as we slide into the celestial season of spring and the church season of Eastertide, when suddenly everything that looked dead comes to life, I am pausing, as I believe Jesus paused in his life, to say “thank you” for life. I do not always see life or feel it or fully embrace it, but when I do, I am grateful that we do not have to die to live.